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Op-Ed

Russia report seeks blunders, ignores progress

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James Goldgeier also teaches at George Washington University. During the first Clinton administration, Blacker and Goldgeier served in the Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs Directorate of the National Security Council.

In March, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., asked 12 Republican colleagues to serve on an advisory group to evaluate America’s Russia policy. Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Newport Beach, led the group, which just released what purports to be an objective accounting of Clinton administration policy “failures” regarding Russia.

If this is an “objective” report, give us subjectivity any day. House Democrats were not even invited to the group’s meetings, much less asked to contribute to the report. Given both its partisan origins and its publication in the midst of the presidential campaign, the report sheds more heat than light on this critically important foreign-policy issue.

In its effort to tie all the problems in Russia to Vice President Al Gore, the Cox report makes the preposterous claim that President Clinton handed off America’s Russia policy to three high-level officials—Gore, then-Ambassador at Large Strobe Talbott and then-Treasury Under Secretary Larry Summers—and paid little attention to an area of fundamental concern to the United States.

The truth is that the president entered office in 1993 well understanding that in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the chance to encourage the development of a prosperous and democratic Russia constituted the opportunity of a lifetime. The president, and at his direction, the vice president, the secretaries of state and defense, Talbott, Summers and others, worked hard to engage Russia.

The most serious charge levied by the Cox report is that the United States in effect compelled the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to provide billions of dollars in “unconditional” loans to the Russian government. But contrary to the report’s claim, the IMF loans were always conditioned on Russia’s undertaking certain kinds of reforms and meeting certain explicit “targets,” which is why disbursements were often held up and why there has been no new lending since 1998.

Three vital areas

The Clinton administration’s Russia policy has focused on three key areas: reducing the nuclear danger to the United States; encouraging the development of Russian democracy at all levels; and working to promote the institutions of a free market.

There have been plenty of bumps in the road, and Russia today remains very much a work in progress. But to allege that U.S. policy has “failed” because Russian democracy falls short of some imagined ideal and the economy has yet to recover is to trivialize the very real gains that have been made over the course of the past decade.

When the Soviet Union broke apart, many Russia experts in the West assumed that the country’s first democratic elections would be its last, and that Moscow would never accept the sovereignty and independence of the other former Soviet states. Since 1993, the Russians have gone to the polls five times to choose their leaders in contested elections. Russia’s relations with the other new independent states range from good to fair, but to date Moscow has resisted the temptation to resolve differences with its now-independent neighbors through force.

The creation of a true market economy and real property rights in Russia has been slow and halting, but every major political force in the country—including the Communists—now accepts the basic tenets of the market.

Most important for the United States, the American people are safer and more secure because of this administration’s Russia policy. Because of our cooperation with leaders in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, we face 5,000 fewer nuclear warheads and almost 500 fewer missiles than we did a decade ago. Of the four nuclear-armed countries that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, today only one—the Russian federation?still has nuclear weapons.

And fears that thousands of Soviet-era nuclear scientists might sell their wares to the highest bidder have gone unrealized with the help of initiatives to convert weapons plants to civilian production.

Much of the credit for the progress we and the Russians have made in dealing with the complex nuclear legacy of the Soviet Union goes to Vice President Al Gore, who co-chaired (with the Russian prime minister) the U.S.-Russia Binational Commission.

The Cox report alleges that the vice president’s strong leadership of the commission proves that Clinton didn’t care about foreign policy. Along the way, the report also denounces the binational commission for failing to prevent Russia’s brutal assault on Chechnya and for ignoring the spread of corruption among the country’s rich and powerful.

Back in 1993, the president asked the vice president to co-chair the binational commission not because he was running away from Russia policy, but because he was determined to deepen and broaden the new relationship with Russia. And by reducing trade barriers to U.S. goods, promoting cooperation to stem the spread of infectious disease, and forging an agreement to end the production of plutonium for use in nuclear weapons, the binational commission has had a positive and lasting impact on the lives of ordinary Americans.

Is the Cox report suggesting that it would have been better to limit the vice president’s foreign-policy activities to attending funerals?

There is no question that Russia’s tragic assault on Chechnya is inexcusable, and corruption remains a huge stumbling block to Russia’s economic recovery. That is why the president and vice president have repeatedly taken the Russians to task for their conduct of the war in Chechnya and why they have also pressed the leadership to combat the corrosive effects of corruption.

That these problems endure is a reflection of the fact that Russia is an independent country and not a colony of the United States. We can and do seek to influence Russian behavior in myriad ways, but in the end it is the Russians themselves who must bear responsibility for their actions—be they actions we support or actions we oppose.

Not perfect

We would be the last to claim that every move the Clinton-Gore team made regarding Russia was the right one. In foreign policy, outcomes are always mixed. Moreover, strategies that produced results at the beginning of the decade may no longer be appropriate today. With the change in administration in both Russia and the United States this year, now is the right time to have an open discussion about the new agenda in U.S.-Russian relations.

This is why the Cox report is such a disappointment. Rather than a bipartisan, forward-looking assessment of the lessons learned in U.S.-Russian relations, the report seeks to score political points by portraying the administration’s efforts as colossal blunders. The record suggests otherwise.

The Cox report is little more than a polemic, designed to cast doubt on Gore’s prospective stewardship of U.S. foreign policy. What we need at this vital juncture in U.S.-Russian relations is an informed, dispassionate and objective accounting of where we have been and where we should be headed in the conduct of this key bilateral relationship. That report has yet to be written.

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